On to my third book now, the first book from my various ill-advised trips to the second-hand book stall (my pile of immediate “to-read” books is ridiculously high at the moment, 14 books after this one, but I can’t help feeding the rush that I get from the feel of a new book in my hands). Got this one mainly because it’s one of those books that should at least be attempted once in a lifetime.
Anyway, first chapter and I’m already excited by the smell of the old pages. Wow, I’m getting far too excited. We start our story 5 miles behind the front lines, where our main characters, a group of German soldiers (with names like Tjaden and Müller, how could they be any other nationality?) are having a celebration of sorts, to mark the fact that they now have enough food to eat. Well, as far as mildly depressing starts go, that’s a good one. They also have double rations of tobacco, which as a non-smoker I can’t see the appeal of, but I suppose war could drive you to anything. So we’re introduced to the group, who I’ll try to differentiate between as best I can (big casts all at once confuse me somewhat), as they line up for food: there’s the narrator Bäumer; his friends from school, Kropp, Müller and Leer; a locksmith Tjaden, a peat-digger Westhus and their leader Katczinsky. All of them, apart from Katczinsky, are only 19 years old. So it turns out that the cook-sergeant has cooked for 150 men, the normal size of their company, the day after they’ve been reduced to 80 men because of long-range shelling from the other side. They seem to be rather blasé about the fact that the food that their eating in effectively paid for by the loss of almost half their group. But I suppose rumbling bellies overcome decorum in this sort of situation. I’ll admit, while the hints of the brutality of war do add up to make a rather depressing tone, it does have some great bits of humour and camaraderie between the characters. Like when the company commander comes along and forces the cook-sergeant to hand out all 150 rations to 80 men.
It skips now to Bäumer, Kropp and Müller going out to the field behind the barracks to read their post and to take a dump. A bit odd to read about, I’ll tell you that. At this point it seems that they’ve gotten to the point where this sort of thing as a communal activity is just second nature now. Our narrator even begins to describe the beautiful things you can see while taking a communal dump in a field. And it does sound rather pretty, if in a very odd way:
“The blue sky is above us. On the horizon we can see the yellow observation balloons with the sun shining on them, and white puffs of smoke from the tracer bullets. Sometimes you see a sudden sheaf of them going up, when they are chasing an airman.”
And so on. They play a few rounds of cards and sort of communicate how close they were to dying back there, without actually talking about it. I know that that description just then sucked, but it’s all I can come up with at the moment. While they’re out there, Kropp finds a letter from a guy called Kantorek, who we’ll presumably now hear about.
Indeed we do. Kantorek turns out to be their form-master from back when they were at school, who persuades his entire class to enlist in the army. They all agree, some after some persuasion, mainly because of the wide view that those who refused to enlist were cowards. And while I’m very supportive of the armed forces, whatever nationality they happen to be, it says something about them when they resort to the “coward” tactic in order to get recruits. So after actually fighting out in the front-line and seeing one of their class-mates killed, ironically the one who was most hesitant, they realise that war is not the wonderful, patriotic duty that their teacher told them it was. And I must say, I have to agree with the book here: it’s not a teacher’s place to force people into following particular paths, it’s a teacher’s place to prepare their students for whatever path they decide to follow.
Anyway, whilst in the field, they decide to visit another of their friends, Kemmerich, who is currently in hospital with a wound to the leg. They get there and I realised that this wouldn’t be the kind of hospital visit where everyone is cheery and optimistic about the treatment these people are getting. Quite why I forgot that after about a year studying the history of medicine, I don’t know. Anyway, it turns out that the wounded leg had to be amputated, and that Kemmerich is unlikely to be going home. They try and be cheerful for the dying guy’s benefit, but it sounds really forced and just plain awkward. They persuade an orderly to give their friend some morphine, to help with the pain, but none of them are under the illusion that he’ll survive the night. The chapter ends with them walking back to the barracks.
Well, that was…depressing, if really well-written. I guess for me it’s very poignant of what soldiers used to go through with war, and to be honest I don’t think it’s gotten much better for them over the years. And the fact that as nations we still don’t give them the credit they deserve is, I think, one of the worst things we could possibly do. Sorry, this rant may well crop up a few more times before this review is done, I just feel that strongly about it.